Character and Freedom

Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters. ~ Benjamin Franklin

Baseball fans received a surprise the other day when Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs broke a bat during a game and the umpire saw that it had been corked. Earlier this year, Sosa hit his 500th homerun, thus ensuring, so many thought, a future spot in the Hall of Fame.

We shouldn't be surprised when politicians lie and cheat and steal. We expect immorality from such people. That, after all, is their job. It's what we pay them for. But in baseball? Shouldn't baseball be honest and pure and respectable? It's been a professional sport since the 1869 Cincinnati Reds, and it harkens back to those old fashioned, traditional American virtues of hard work, personal responsibility, and fair play. Didn't baseball ban for life those players back in 1919 who threw the World Series? Hasn't it banned Pete Rose, the player with more hits than anyone ever, because in its eyes he committed the deadly sin of betting on baseball when he was manager of the 1989 Cincinnati Reds? And isn't baseball correct in holding its players and the sport itself to this standard?

But for this to happen in baseball ' and for it to be Sammy Sosa, of all people: the man who has broken Roger Maris' old homerun record of 61 in a season, a record which stood for 37 years, not once but three times since 1998! The man who once sold oranges and shined shoes as a poor boy in the Dominican Republic and who touches his heart and blows a two-fingered kiss to the crowd! Why would he consciously break the rules like this? Why would he feel the need to cheat?

It's bad enough that Sosa got caught cheating like this. But what Bret Boone, a former Cincinnati Red who now plays for the Seattle Mariners, said in response to this incident has even graver implications than the incident itself because it goes to the very heart of why we have the kind of society, and thus the kind of government, that we now have. Luckily, though, it can also give us a clue as to how you and I might change this society and this government.

In 1869, when the Reds first began professional play, America was a very different country. If the law and government played any role in the everyday lives of people then, it played a very small one. And yet America was, by and large, a calm and pleasant place. There was, relatively speaking, very little crime ' few rapes, few murders. People generally found ways to make do, to get by, and they tended to treat one another with respect. How could this have happened without the government enforcing it? How could they have lived together so peaceably, how could they have gotten along, without using Power? How could they have made do without the State?

It happened because people had character. The laws that governed people's actions came not from without ' not from Washington or any civil authority ' but from the individual heart. They did good things because they knew those things were good, and they refrained from doing bad things not because they were afraid of being caught but because they knew those things were bad. It was not the law that they were afraid of ' it was themselves. It was their own conscience ' it was the voice of God in them that they could and would not cross or disappoint.

People tend not to have this kind of character anymore. They lack any voice from, or even any belief in, God and thus they lack personal conscience. I don't need to prove this or substantiate this for you, do I? Isn't it apparent everywhere you go? It's certainly true in school. According to Student Cheating and Plagiarism in the Internet Era: A Wake-Up Call by Ann Lathrop and Kathleen Foss, 80% of high school students admit to having cheated , 67% say they have copied homework, 98% say they have let others copy their work, 95% of those who cheated avoided getting caught, and 34% said their parents never talked to them about cheating.

Texas A&M's Center for Academic Integrity reported in October 2001 that, of the students they talked with, 74% of respondents reported one or more instances of serious test cheating , 72% reported one or more instances of serious cheating on written work , 97% reported at least one questionable activity (copying homework to test copying) , and more than 30% of respondents admitted to repetitive, serious cheating on tests/exams.

In my own classes, I've experienced several instances of students cheating by giving me essays they had not written. One I was going along with pretty well, thinking he'd done quite a good job, until I got to the last page and read his account of giving birth to his son. Just this past semester, a student in one of my basic writing classes, who only occasionally came to class, disappeared altogether for several weeks, returning to give me an exquisitely written essay about fishing in which I learned that, to my surprise and delight, he had not only become a much better thinker and writer, but he and his partner had also just finished a film on fishing that would be appearing on PBS!

Thomas Macaulay, the English author and historian, wrote that 'The measure of a person's character is what he would do if he were never found out.' Contrast this with what the aforementioned Bret Boone was quoted on as saying about the Sosa corked bat incident:

'I've never used a corked bat . . . . If I was guaranteed I wouldn't get caught, I probably would.''

It's not his own conscience, then, that keeps Boone from cheating; it's the fear of getting caught. Can you doubt that Boone's attitude is much more widespread in modern America than Macaulay's? And, further, can you doubt that this lack of character on the part of modern Americans is indeed part of the reason we have the government we have today? To quote the Swiss philosopher Henri Frederic Amiel: 'Civilization is first of all a moral thing. Without truth, respect for duty, love of neighbor, and virtue, everything is destroyed. The morality of a society is alone the basis of civilization.'

Can we be surprised, can we be upset, at losing our freedoms, at having such a government, at living in such a society, when so many of us have become such character-less, immoral people? James Q. Wilson wrote not so long ago in On Character that 'Character is not the enemy of self-expression and personal freedom, it is their necessary precondition." That's worth repeating: character is the necessary precondition of self-expression and of personal freedom. Not law. Not government. Not Power. Not the State.


To regain our freedoms as individuals, then, we first have to rebuild and regain our character. It will not work the other way. We cannot regain freedom without first regaining character. To eliminate the State, we must eliminate our need for the State, our desire for the State, and we can only do that by regaining character. There is simply no other way. The path to freedom is not through the voting booth. It's not through revolution or violence. It's not through war. It's through your own individual mind ' through your mind and my mind. As Robert Pirsig wrote in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, 'The place to improve the world is first in one's own heart and head and hands.'

Your rating: None
Craig Russell's picture
Columns on STR: 35

Craig Russell is a writer and musician in upstate New York.